March 1, 2012


Are the Peasants Revolting? Occupy Wall Street's Foreign Policy (P. J. O'Rourke, January/February 2012, World Affairs Journal)

It's wrong to think of the Occupy movement--or the vassals or the villeins or the sturdy plowmen--as inchoate. Their guiding ideas are clear enough. Foremost is zero sum, the belief that there's a fixed amount of material goods. What the one percent has was taken from me.

In the rustic world from which we all so lately came, this was an item of true faith. Pasturage and arable land were the source of wealth, and their ownership was indeed zero sum. But chemical fertilizers, mechanized farm equipment, irrigation pumps, hybridized seeds, and cheap transport of crops to markets made even clod-hopping infinitely expandable. The Industrial Revolution turned the notion of fixed amounts into a heresy for anyone able to think better than a Marxist. Supposedly ninety-nine percent of people can't.

Then there is the assumption that the rich and powerful run the world, an assumption that the rich and powerful share. Perhaps they do run the world, though evidence--from Richard II to Jon Corzine--indicates they aren't very good at it.

"We are speaking out against the corporate interests that have taken over our political and economic systems," says the "Welcome to OccupyDC" flyer I picked up in McPherson Square at a moment when the political system in Washington was utterly deadlocked. And if the men who control corporate interests really had the law in the palms of their hands, their inevitable divorces from their embittered first wives wouldn't be nearly as expensive.

Implicit in a mass uprising dedicated to pointing out the unfairness of everything is a vision of what fairness is. There's no use pointing out that fairness doesn't exist. Anyone who's raised kids remembers the stage small children go through when they begin to acquire a sense of self and others and an awareness of the uneven distribution of possessions and prerogatives between the two. The results are fierce declarations of "mine!" and equally fierce insistences on sharing. It's a stage none of us truly outgrows.

Two items from the OccupyWallStreet website:

Supposedly, all the stuff that was taken by the police from the square will be available for people to pick up at noon EST today. WE NEED PEOPLE TO GO TO MIDTOWN MANHATTAN AND HELP THE OCCUPIERS GET THEIR STUFF BACK TODAY!

To occupy is to embody the spirit of liberation that we wish to manifest in our society . . . Liberated space is breaking free of isolation, breaking down the walls that literally and figuratively separate us from one another.

But the most important part of Occupy's political and economic thinking is not doing any. A November 19th blog posting from OccupyOakland shows about as much brain disconnect as can be packed into two sentences:

Occupy Oakland calls for the blockade and disruption of the economic apparatus of the 1% with a coordinated shutdown of ports on the entire West Coast on December 12th. The 1% has disrupted the lives of longshoremen and port truckers and the workers who create their wealth . . .

And an October 30th New York Times article about the cold weather travails of the Occupy movement displays the occupiers' magnificent cluelessness about political reality. After a Denver snowstorm "which organizers said sent five protesters to the hospital," Occupy Denver went on the Internet and "urged followers and supporters . . . to call the governor and mayor to express outrage for allowing conditions to persist that protesters said were dangerous."

Not to bring Richard II into this yet again, but after the mobs of Wat Tyler's Rebellion had sacked London, Richard granted all their demands. He drew up and signed elaborate charters abolishing serfdom, lowering land rents, granting general amnesty, etc. When the rebels still failed to disperse, the young king (only fourteen but already wise in the ways of spin control) took a few retainers and rode into the middle of Wat Tyler's encampment. Tyler was killed in a scuffle with Richard's guard, and the rebels moved to attack Richard. He said, "Sirs, will you kill your king? I am your king, I your captain and your leader. Follow me into the fields." They did.

The rebels, of course, were rounded up and arrested by Richard's army, and the charters were thrown away.

It isn't that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are dunces, it's rather that they have an intellectual conundrum. How an economy of perfect fairness would work is unknowable. And what kind of political authority would be needed to effect such fairness is unthinkable. So the protesters are exercising what economists call "rational ignorance"--when the cost of educating yourself about something exceeds the benefit of the learning you acquire. Fully educating yourself about all the ramifications of a completely fair economic system would probably cost you your sanity. It happened to Noam Chomsky. And learning about the nature of the political power necessary for such a project could be done only at the cost of finding out things you don't want to know, such as how Pol Pot ran Cambodia.

Posted by at March 1, 2012 7:00 AM

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